I remember hearing the word when I was young, and the thought terrified me. I imagined a cerebral cortex being scrubbed down on a washboard. That’s what I thought of when I heard the word, “brainwashed.”
But I remember thinking it probably wasn’t so bad once they put the clean brain back in your skull.
No, I was told clearly, “brainwashing” is a bad thing done by bad people. There is nothing worse than being told what to think and what not to think.
So you can imagine what I thought every time I went into the homes of my new “friends,” the Lubavitchers. There wasn’t one house that didn’t have a large, prominently displayed picture of the Rebbe.
I know about people like you, I thought to myself. You’ve been brainwashed.
Then there were other people we met who only confirmed our suspicion. They would say to us, “We really like Lubavitch. We just have a problem with… the Rebbe.”
I knew what they meant. I had never seen a leader so totally revered by his followers. Americans didn’t put up pictures of the President and I had never seen a rabbi picture anywhere in a Jewish home.
There was only one problem: I really liked the Rebbe’s followers and they seemed to really like me, and I knew it wasn’t because they wanted to brainwash me.
I liked their pride in being Jewish, the way they helped people, the fact that they talked about G-d and the meaning of life. I understood that this all came from the Rebbe, but it still seemed strange that their religious observance was so connected to a human being.
It didn’t take me long to see that the Rebbe was someone people turned to when they wanted or needed something. What could be wrong with having a little help with that? Besides, the Rebbe didn’t demand loyalty or any commitments in return; what did I have to lose, especially if I could get some help in the blessings department?
I took full advantage of the Rebbe’s ability to look out for me when my husband Zev and I actually had a yechidus, a private audience, with the Rebbe in 1989. I was expecting a child (who soon became my daughter Leah) so naturally I wanted to ask the Rebbe for a blessing for a healthy baby. But my wish list kept getting bigger as I realized I should cover all my bases, grandchildren and great grandchildren included.
You have to ask for what you want, right?
It’s hard to remember when the thought occurred to me, that if I really wanted to be covered forever and ever, I needed to ask the Rebbe to bring Moshiach, the Messiah. But that’s exactly what I did.
I said to the Rebbe, “If you would bring Moshiach, all of our prayers would be answered.” The Rebbe answered that he was ready, but that he needed the cooperation of all the Jews around him.
I then asked the Rebbe for a blessing to work harder to bring him as soon as possible. The Rebbe then answered, “Yes, and as soon as possible because Moshiach is ready to come tomorrow…or maybe the day after tomorrow.”
Now, twenty-five years later, I am starting to understand that I got my personal charge from the Rebbe on that day.
We saw the Rebbe many times before he passed away in 1994 on the third day of Tammuz (corresponding to this Monday night and Tuesday). Together with thousands of others, our family would line up for hours outside the Rebbe’s office so each of us could receive a blessing from the Rebbe, along with a dollar that we would then exchange for another dollar to give to tzedaka. Little by little, I realized that the Rebbe was more than a holy intervenor, that he was also a spiritual guide whose teachings could help me clean out not just my brain but my soul.
I only have one real recollection of hearing the Rebbe actually speak from his headquarters in 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The women were standing on benches, pressed together side to side, with only our heads facing front. It was so crowded that your feet didn’t have to touch the floor for you to be held up. I couldn’t see the Rebbe, he spoke in Yiddish so I couldn’t understand the Rebbe, but none of that mattered. I knew that it was good for me to be there.
I just remember asking the woman next to me what the Rebbe was saying. She answered, “when you give something to someone else, it should be better than what you keep for yourself.”
So this was how the Rebbe was trying to brainwash me. If I want to get clean, “good enough” is not good enough when it comes to doing for others.
You can imagine how often I hear those words, how many times over the years I have deliberated over my two bags of mandel bread, pushing my hand to give away the bigger one because I know this is what the Rebbe wants me to do.
And that’s just for starters. I don’t always do what the Rebbe wants, I know that, but I’m committed to trying.
And I know one other thing: I haven’t been sorry yet.